Hoops and Dreams: A Look Inside Basketball in Việt Nam

Hoàng Ca arriving to his second home, the local basketball gym in Vancouver. (Photo courtesy:  Henry Nguyễn )

Hoàng Ca arriving to his second home, the local basketball gym in Vancouver. (Photo courtesy: Henry Nguyễn)

Published February 16, 2017 in Episode 66.

Basketball in Việt Nam jumped to new heights in 2016 with the establishment of its first professional league: the VBA - the Vietnam Basketball Association.

Meet: The Flash Brothers

“The atmosphere. To be able to perform in front of the whole city, basically anybody who plays basketball in the city, in Hà Nội. You actually wanted to represent them and actually wanted to do well for them,” says Hoàng Nguyễn, who is known to fans as Hoàng Ca.

The Ca stands for Canada, where he grew up. Last year, he and his twin brother Đạt Nguyễn, known as Đạt Doc, played for the Hanoi Buffaloes in the VBA. The 27-year-old brothers have played basketball their entire lives and cite the fans as their source of inspiration to continually improve their game both on and off the court.

Never imagining the possibility of turning a hobby into a full time passion, the twins have been dubbed by fans as the Flash Brothers, and have made quite a name for themselves in the VBA’s inaugural season, which ran from August through October of last year.

Đạt Doc (left) and Hoàng Ca (right) preparing for the next defensive stop. (Photo courtesy:  Henry Nguyễn )

Đạt Doc (left) and Hoàng Ca (right) preparing for the next defensive stop. (Photo courtesy: Henry Nguyễn)

Now in the off-season, the Flash Brothers are working to improve their game. Hoàng is famous for his three pointers, dribbling, and driving skills while his brother is famous for his incredible speed, crossovers, and shooting. However, both are relatively undersized at 5 feet 9. It’s an obstacle that the brothers have faced their entire lives. Hoàng laughs:

We can play, it’s just that we’re small. I have pride in being small Vietnamese. We show some heart out there. Show that some of us can play.

Born in Hà Nội, the brothers went to high school in Vancouver, Canada. And it was there that their love for basketball evolved. The game brought them closer together, playing pickup games as often as the recess bell rang.

“I get to play high school level in Canada and I also played pickup in Canada, and that helped a lot for my development,” he recalls. “Once I go back, in Việt Nam there are a lot of club teams, but not professional, just for fun.”  

These club teams existed in every major city, and leagues existed for player for all ages and levels. And in 2011, a basketball team named “the Saigon Heat” was launched. This move, spearheaded by the XLE Group, a sports development agency in Việt Nam, marked Việt Nam’s first move into the professional sport of basketball, sparking interest and inspiration from both the local and global Vietnamese community.

Hoàng says this is when everyone started to come out and play basketball.

The Rise of the Basketball Enterprise

The Saigon Heat represents Việt Nam and competes in the ABL, the ASEAN Basketball League, against five other teams in Southeast Asia.

Equally crucial to the game are the fans. 25-year-old Trí Phạm from Sài Gòn, religiously follows basketball and says fans are starting to go crazy over basketball and that it’s quickly catching up with soccer.

Trí says, “If there's one interesting thing about basketball in Việt Nam, I would say it's the fans. The fans are always supporting, enthusiastic, they are probably the most supporting fan in the whole league. Because if you watch an ABL game or Saigon Heat then you would know it right away.”

He says Việt Nam began broadcasting NBA games for the first time in 2016, driving completely new fans to the game.

And now that Việt Nam has its own professional league, people are seeing a way to create the infrastructure and environment for basketball to flourish in Việt Nam. Both the VBA and Saigon Heat were founded by XLE Group. Their CEO and Managing Partner is Connor Nguyễn, a longtime sportsman and tennis coach turned entrepreneur.

Connor tells the story of how he got to this point: “Never been back to Việt Nam, decided to visit, ended up being invited back to Việt Nam to work for a company. And so I worked in Việt Nam in 2008 for a year, got the entrepreneurial itch again, and started a sports training school in 2009 and things kind of took off from there.”

After coaching tennis in Việt Nam, Connor decided to take an entrepreneurial stab at growing sports altogether,  upon realizing the potential of basketball becoming big in Việt Nam.

Connor sees three major pillars influencing the success of sports in any country, the first being youth development. And the second, sports as entertainment.

Sports As a Business

“To create sustainable systems, so instead of just taking money from the government and spending it or spending a lot of money on a professional team without thinking about the business model. So that we can move the country to be able to compete internationally and have success. To create more pride.”

Alongside the business challenges are cultural ones. With basketball’s increase in popularity, players like Hoàng suggest that there may soon be a shift in the common perception in Vietnamese culture that sports are  a waste of time and that youth should focus on their studies. He says there are valuable lessons to learn from this process.  

The Saigon Heat make a school day visit to Trường THPT Nguyễn Du, a local highschool in Sài Gòn. (Photo courtesy:  Henry Nguyễn )

The Saigon Heat make a school day visit to Trường THPT Nguyễn Du, a local highschool in Sài Gòn. (Photo courtesy: Henry Nguyễn)

“A lot of young kids told me, hey maybe when they grow up they will be playing for Hanoi buffaloes. I tell them to love the game and play with all the passion” Hoàng says.

As kids, the Flash brothers played soccer, the most popular sport in the world. But after reading the comic book Basketball Slam Dunk, they switched to basketball. They fell in love with the game and began playing  every day after school.

The Flash brothers played on this court in Hà Nội everyday during their childhood.   (Photo courtesy:  Henry Nguyễn )

The Flash brothers played on this court in Hà Nội everyday during their childhood. (Photo courtesy: Henry Nguyễn)

Hoàng says, “[Đạt’s] school was closer to basketball court which now we still play and that court is called home court. We don't know any rules or anything. When we see the court is feels so super high. A lot of people playing already. When we see them we wonder how can someone shoot from so far away at 3 point line. I can barely dribble. I was amazed. Those guys back then was my idol. Man maybe one day I can be like them.”

Fast forward to today, the Flash Brothers are now helping young players up their game.

The game has grown from its local roots through the efforts of individual and organizational collaboration. XLE Group is building basketball from the ground up and they aren’t doing it alone.

He also works in close partnership with the Vietnam Basketball Federation, working hand-in-hand with them from the federation side, and the private side.

The Vietnam Basketball Federation is the governing body of all Vietnamese basketball operations. They’ve expressed their motivation to turn basketball into the number two Olympic sport in Việt Nam, just behind shooting. It will be key to develop popularity among youth.

The Role of Việt Kiều

Taking notice are Việt Kiều, members of the Vietnamese diaspora. In the league they’re called “heritage players.” Justin Young, a 23-year-old Los Angeles native, is one such player. He played for the Hanoi Buffaloes in 2016. He says,

My parents were born in Việt Nam. I think it’s huge. Just to have Vietnamese Americans from America come to play. The fans over there look up to Việt Kiều who go over there. They expect a lot because you’re coming from America. They expect Americans to be a lot tougher, a lot better, a lot bigger playing basketball. The more Việt Kiều we have over there in the league, the better for the competition, and development. More fans would come and watch the games.

The XLE Group seeks to bring more overseas Vietnamese players to contribute to the league. They believe heritage players can inspire a new generation of basketball players and set examples and high standards of play.

And critical to XLE’s strategy of growing the sport is showcasing local, specifically Vietnamese talent. VBA teams consist of roughly 13 players: ten native Vietnamese, two Việt Kiều, and one import. Imports are non-Vietnamese players that have come from America, Canada and the Philippines and are typically the more skilled players in the league. Limiting the team to one import player per team is a key strategy in drawing out more fans, like Trí Phạm.

“To have Việt Kiều in the league to improve the quality of the game for sure,” Trí says. “And to give a good image for the fans to say we have good players and they are vietnamese too, they’re not going to bring white dudes to the league, no matter how good they are they can't really relate. People want to see Vietnamese players, good Vietnamese players.”

Getting Ready for the International Stage

The Southeast Asian Games takes place this year, a multi-sport event for eleven nations across Southeast Asia. Việt Nam is looking to build its national team to create a presence on the international stage.

Hoàng understands the role large organizations like XLE Group and VBF play in making this happen. Olympic medals for Vietnamese athletes in taekwondo and shooting have proven that early investments into these athletes can provide both short and long term benefits.

He says, “The people in the Vietnam Basketball Federation actually consider to develop player and want to make basketball big in Việt Nam, they have to commit to it, not by words but by actions.”

Hoàng believes Improving the facilities is the number one priority. Courts with hardwood, not concrete, floors where you can play at night would draw out local talent. Improving the level of coaching is number two: having people who know the game and pass that knowledge on.

XLE aspires to inspire the love for the game to millions of Vietnamese. As the community grows, so does its impact and interest. Who knows, basketball may one day challenge soccer to become the number one sport in Việt Nam.

Hoàng sends a message to players, “You have a chance. The chance comes to you knocks on your door, and you open and take it. Who know maybe you can do something bigger. If you have a chance, take it.”

That’s Hoàng’s invitation to all who are interested in basketball in Việt Nam, to come out to the VBA’s open tryouts happening early April in Los Angeles. You heard it here first.

Vietnam Basketball Association

Teams | Highlights | Player Stats | News & Updates

Saigon Heat

Team | Highlights |  Asean Basketball League